Leukemia occurs when many abnormal white blood cells—called leukemic blasts—take over the bone marrow and enter the bloodstream. Instead of helping to fight against infection, leukemic blasts multiply and disrupt the body’s production of other important blood cells, including platelets and red blood cells.
Leukemia is one of the most common types of childhood cancer. Children with leukemia often experience many different types of problems, including bleeding, anemia, bone pain, fevers, and infections. If left untreated, leukemia can spread to other areas and organs, such as the lymph nodes, liver, spleen, and brain.
There are several types of leukemia. Generally, forms of leukemia can be classified as either acute or chronic. Acute forms of leukemia develop rapidly, while chronic forms of leukemia develop slowly.
Almost all forms of childhood leukemia are acute. In fact, the two types of leukemia most likely to occur in children are acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). Of the over 2,000 children diagnosed with leukemia each year, about 60% have ALL, while the remainder is mostly AML.
Childhood leukemia is treated in a variety of ways. Some patients receive chemotherapy or radiation. Others may receive new stem cells in the form of a bone marrow transplant.
Fortunately, the chances of being cured of leukemia are often good. With proper treatment, many children can conquer leukemia and achieve remission, which means doctors can’t find any evidence of cancer in the body. Although it’s possible for leukemia to relapse, remission can often be maintained with additional maintenance chemotherapy.
Although scientists are constantly exploring ways to prevent leukemia in the future, they have found that most forms of leukemia come about as a result of noninherited mutations in the genes of growing blood cells. These changes happen randomly and can’t be predicted. Thus, there’s no effective way to prevent leukemia today.